As robots slowly become more capable, the realization that our relationship with work must undergo radical review is spreading. Mostly, thoughts turn to the link between jobs and wages. Proposals are put forward, such as the introduction of a guaranteed basic income or a moneyless society, as possible solutions for a time when the rise of automation will make human beings- in employable terms at least- truly useless.
Here I want to talk about something else, namely the association between jobs and work. These are assumed to be one and the same thing. When somebody sets off to their place of employment, we say they are ‘going to work’. The place where you do your job is known as the ‘workplace’. And a dictionary definition such as ‘an activity… that a person uses physical or mental effort to do’ sounds equally applicable to ‘jobs’ as it does to ‘work’.
JOBS = WHAT?
I am not so much interested in plain old physical or mental effort, though, but rather societal attitude to jobs. This attitude results in what professional staffing solutions in Edmonton might call the ‘Fairytale Of Jobs’. As children, we are asked ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?’. Such a question makes it seem as if starting a job is akin to beginning some great quest to become an idealised self. It sounds rather like playing an MMORPG with leveling up, character development, Achievements, and other rewards as one follows a path to greater success. It all sounds jolly exciting.
But, you have to wonder: If that is what a job is like, why is it that the number one item on most people’s ‘things to do when I win the lottery’ list is ‘tell the boss where to stick his job?’. How come the days people cite as their favourite tend to be weekends and holidays and the worst day of the week is usually Monday? Isn’t that strange, given that your job is where you become the person you were meant to be?
Of course, the answer to this puzzle is pretty straight forward. Although some jobs do put employees on a career path toward heights of personal development and success, the vast majority do no such thing. Work, when it is truly productive and meaningful, is among the most rewarding activities a person can engage in. People need to work, it is vital for maintaining a healthy body and mind. But most of the jobs that people are required to do so restrict one’s capacity to enjoy the richness of life and so limit one’s full potential, it seems almost criminal to associate jobs with so noble a word as ‘work’. We should be associating ‘jobs’ with another word, instead, and I think it is obvious which one:
ARE YOU A SLAVE? PROBABLY.
It is commonly believed that slavery has been almost entirely abolished but in fact there are more slaves in the world today than at any time in history. It is just that the nature of slavery has changed. In the past, slaves wore visible chains. The modern slave is held captive by invisible, abstract ‘chains’, such as debt. Slave owners were obliged to house and feed the people they claimed to be their property; the modern ‘wage-slave’ must house and feed him or herself. There is one more difference, and some may say it means employees cannot be considered slaves. It is this: If you were sold as a slave, you had no choice but to work for whoever bought you, whereas if you are an employee you can always quit.
But, then, slaves- Roman slaves at least- were able to buy their freedom and the wage-slave can do likewise. It’s what we call ‘saving for retirement’. Unless you have enough savings to retire, leaving one job for whatever reason just means that person is under great pressure to find another. So, whereas slaves in the past were sold by a third-party, the modern slave is obliged to sell him or herself. Is that progress? Well, maybe. But I do not think much of it.
WHATEVER HAPPENED TO LIVES OF LEISURE?
People with some understanding of the history of work may well respond with some doubt when they hear the AI Summer is coming and, with it, endless an vacation for people. After all, this sort of thing has been promised before. At the beginning of the 20th century, the mechanization of factories and farming made production so efficient, we were able to produce a surplus of goods. Seeing that we were producing so much with relatively little effort, futurists predicted radical reductions in the amount of hours people would need to be in employment. We were assured that, well before the 20th century was through, people would be working three days per week, and would be spending the rest of their time pursuing lives of leisure.
Well, here we are well into the second decade of the 21st century and people still seem to be pursuing and doing full-time jobs. So, what happened? One answer can be found by considering the prime motive of capitalism, which is endless growth, and the need to always increase profit. Since that is the primary motivation, it obviously would not do to have consumers who are content with enough. They must be driven to want more. Is there another reason? Maybe. In his classic dystopian novel ’1984’ , George Orwell writes about the development of machine production and the rise in productivity potentially rendering inequality in social and economic terms a thing of the past. But, the elites, plotting to hold on to the power that comes from class distinction, engage in an endless unwinnable global war, the sole purpose of which is to provide ‘a convenient way of expending labour power… so as to eat up any surplus that might exist after meeting the bare needs of the population’.
Obviously no such sinister plot happened in reality because, in material terms at least, life is better now than it was in the past. Instead, what happened was that society was manipulated through advertisement and the introduction of credit and other schemes to chase after not just things we need but things we desire. Or could be made to desire. And, it turned out that we could be made to desire an almost infinite range of material possessions, much of which can quite honestly be said to have no real value. The result of this cultivated urge to keep up with the Joneses was summarised by Tyler Durden, anti-hero of the movie ‘Fight Club’.
“I see all this potential, and I see squandering. God damn it, an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables; slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need”.
Something else happened, too, and I do not know when it began. That something, is the total over-exaggeration of the importance of having a job. We see this attitude in the way people talk about their job not just in terms of some means to an end but as somehow being who they are. ‘My name is Bob and I am a petrol pump attendant’. ‘My name is Kate and I am an accountant’. No, you are not an accountant; a machine purpose-built to manage the cash-flow of a company is an accountant. You are a human being with more potential than anything in the known universe.
IF ROBOTS DO JOBS, WHAT ABOUT US?
Another example of over-emphasising the importance of jobs can be seen in a response that always follows forecasts of automation wiping out jobs: ‘If that happens, what will people do with their time? We will all get fat and lazy!’. There is, of course, some justification for being concerned that the rise of automation will make it exceedingly difficult to get paid employment and that this would make life very tough if society still insists on applying a price tag to just about everything. But I think this objection goes beyond concerns for lack of money, since we already have pension schemes and retirement plans and social security which could conceivably be extended to apply from birth, paid for by the vast productive efforts of the machine workforce (Hans Moravec proposed taxing robotic corporations and using the funds raised to for life-long pensions. The robots would then work furiously to make products we spend money on, since our coveting the goods they produce is key to their ‘survival’). No, the objection is not just that jobs are just a way of obtaining money but that having a job is somehow indispensable in providing motivation and drive and the desire to get off one’s butt and so something productive.
WHY WE PERSIST IN BELIEVING THE FAIRYTALE
Aubrey de Grey has spoken of what he calls a ‘Pro-Ageing Trance’. When people say that death is inevitable or that it must serve some useful purpose, he sees this as nothing but a psychological defence system people have developed in order not to have to confront the grim reality of their own demise. Since, in the past, there truly was nothing one could do to postpone death indefinitely, it made psychological sense to rationalize it away as inevitable and good (somehow) and put it out of one’s mind. But now that medical science could conceivably be on the verge of developing actual methods for dealing with the ‘seven deadly sins of ageing’, the Pro-Ageing Trance is no longer a psychologically useful defence mechanism but rather an impediment to progress, for it is preventing people from getting fully behind the SENS agenda and lobbying for better funding and support.
I believe this line of reasoning also applies to the mystery concerning why we deem having a job to be of such great importance. Although the vast majority of jobs offer very little in terms of personal satisfaction and opportunities to nurture one’s talents, they are important in terms of the part they play in the overall process of producing goods and services the market indicates as valuable. Since people covet these things, the jobs that need to be done in order to make them available have to be filled. And, although the tide of automation is slowly rising, replacing some human workers with machines or software, there still remain jobs which only humans can be relied upon to do.
Since people are an absolute necessity, it was necessary for society to nurture an attitude that having a job was also an absolute necessity. Not just because it pays but because it is the only true means of having purpose in one’s life. It was in society’s interest to make those who were unemployed feel like pariahs, since that social pressure would provide motivation to join the ranks of ‘slaves with white collars’ producing shit we don’t need but which advertising had convinced us we desired.
What if we were truthful about jobs and told our children ‘some people have careers but the vast majority are wage-slaves, since the job market has way more unpleasant, dreary, and uninspiring jobs which people are obliged to do because of money pressures. Given that there are so many dull jobs there is every chance you will join the ranks of wage-slaves, regardless of how talented you actually are”. Would that motivate them more than the cheerful but mostly misleading ‘what do you want to be, when you grow up?’. Which speech would most likely instil an attitude of ‘why bother?’ Yes, the ‘wage-slave’ speech. So given that all jobs need to be done, even the ones which dull the lives of those obliged to do them, it made sense that society would need to believe in the fairytale of jobs; that having a job puts everybody on the road to fulfilment and if anybody should be seen to be without successful careers it must be due to them lacking suitable motivation, not the fact that the job market only needs very few to achieve such success, while the majority must remain stuck doing dull work.
THE FUTURE COULD BE GREAT IF WE MAKE IT SO
But if we are on course for an AI summer and this results in the development of robots that can replace most, if not all, human workers, the fairytale of jobs as the only true path to success, and the overemphasis of the importance of having a job, could become impediments to genuine progress. If we continue to equate jobs with work (and, remember, people do need to be engaged in genuinely meaningful work) we may make the mistake of believing people need to have jobs even when robots and other forms of high-technology have filled most roles in the job market. We may invent jobs in the mistaken belief that people have to have them in order to live full lives.
The rise of robots, the realization of molecular nanotechnology and other examples of high technology forecast to become reality over the coming years could provide us with a golden opportunity. What if ‘what do you want to be, when you grow up?’ was not just a nice fairytale destined to remain nothing but a comforting lie for most of us, but a genuine promise that society would provide all the ways and means of becoming all you were meant to be, and that suitable motivation and application on your part would stand you in excellent stead for developing your natural gifts to their full potential? With the technologies of Abundance providing not just the means to obtain the bare minimum needed for survival (food, water, shelter) but also everything one needs to cultivate a truly productive, meaningful life, we could make good on such a promise.
Jobs were necessary in the past and they are necessary now. They may not be necessary in the future, if we can indeed create robots and other machines to fully replace human workers. It will take many adjustments in order to ensure the robot revolution is one that transcends our lives and no single step will be sufficient to achieve this. But we should adopt the following slogan as one attitude among many that could facilitate change in the desired direction:
JOBS=SLAVERY. ABOLISH SLAVERY.
* image used from http://www.pinterest.com/pin/156077943308593211/